CAIRO—Since a military-backed government took power here last year after the ouster of the Islamist leader, Egypt’s public universities have faced policy shifts that critics have condemned as reversals of gains made in favor of university independence.
Police were allowed back on campuses. The president granted himself power to appoint university presidents and deans.
Now, a law regulating independent organizations could soon be issued, sparking concern among activists that student and academic freedoms will be limited, that groups promoting those rights will be targeted and that groups seeking to improve education could be effectively handcuffed.
Several drafts of a new law regulating non-governmental organizations have been floated in the wake of Hosni Mubarak’s ouster in 2011—and all have been criticized by local and international rights groups. The latest draft was presented by Egypt’s Social Solidarity Ministry to Egyptian groups in June.
“The government wants to issue a law that would basically give them control over civil society,” said Mohamed Lotfy, executive director of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, “and that is the approach that we see in every draft proposed by the government or discussed in committees of the Ministry of Social Solidarity.”
“The idea is to control funding of NGOs and their activities so that they don’t oppose any government policies, line or direction,” he said.
The Social Solidarity Ministry said in a statement on August 11 that it asked the General Federation of NGOs to conduct dialogue and consultation “to come out with a final draft agreed upon by most actors.” The ministry said it is committed to producing a final draft that is compatible with the 2014 constitution and that “would fulfill the aspiration of the Egyptian civil society to unleash its potential.”
But that statement didn’t put Lotfy at ease. He said it is simply rhetoric. Even if the state seeks consensus among the majority of independent groups, he said, the opinions of human-rights organizations, which comprise the minority and are critical of the government, will be discounted. Indeed, some human-rights and civil-society groups, including Human Rights Watch, have either shut down their offices in the country or been prevented from opening up new offices. Security forces have also conducted raids of offices of independent associations such as the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights as well as United States-based groups including the National Democratic Institute and Freedom House.
The Social Solidarity Ministry indicated that any decision to issue a new law, which would replace an existing one, would be up to the country’s next parliament. But if the final law looks anything like the latest version that was presented in June, activists fear severe drawbacks.
“We see the draft law as another step in order to close completely the public sphere,” said Mohamed Zaree, Egypt program manager at the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies. Shutting down civil society “will not only affect students but it will also affect any kind of stability in the country,” he said, since people could take to the streets to protest against what would be an injustice.
Egypt is home to 40,000 Egyptian NGOs, according to government figures, and 89 foreign organizations are authorized by authorities to carry out activities here.
Some of the NGOs say they are already having difficulty carrying out what seem to be politically harmless programs. About a month ago, the Egyptian Center for Public Policy Studies approached three public universities, seeking professors who could speak on a panel about water problems in Egypt, said Mahmoud Farouk, executive director of the organization.
“The three universities asked us to send a letter about the organization and its background and then they told us very clearly and honestly that we will send this to the Ministry of Interior and wait until they [approve] or not,” he said, referring to the body that oversees the police. “The three got back to us and they said the Ministry of Interior refused us.”
Farouk said new legislation could formalize a university process of seeking security approval for campus activities.
A 2012 version of the NGO draft law would have reduced some restrictions on independent groups. But the bill remained “captive to the philosophy of control, restriction and administrative tutelage that was entrenched over the past several decades,” said a statement by more than 40 rights groups in May that year.
A later draft, in 2013, saw some improvements, rights groups said, yet it gave authorities the power to deny groups access to local and overseas funds and to object to the work of any independent group.
Critics slammed the most recent draft, presented in June, as legislation that could extinguish civil society not controlled by government. It would give government and security agencies veto power over all associations’ activities, impose stifling limits on foreign funding, empower authorities to disband existing groups and require international organizations to receive permission from security officials to conduct activities in Egypt, said a July 14 Human Rights Watch report.
The latest draft would prevent all groups from participating in “political activities” and bar Egyptian organizations from cooperating with international associations without government clearance.
“I see no reason why authorities would not be applying it to groups that might stand up on campuses, discussion groups, groups with a political edge,” said Joe Stork, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division. “It’s definitely intended to have state supervision over all aspects of civil life.”
Activists say the proposed legislation is aimed at controlling the work of groups that are critical of the government, which could impede the work of those promoting student and academic freedoms. One of them is the Cairo-based Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, which would be unlikely to get funding if permission from security agencies is required, said Ahmed Ezzat, legal unit director of the organization. “They will not give us permission especially with the kind of work we do,” he said.
Egyptian authorities have shown a pattern of little tolerance for dissent since last year, jailing journalists and beating—and sometimes killing—students for protesting against the government, he said. “And we have documentation for all those cases, so we don’t expect that a government that prevents people from practicing their rights will give NGOs the right to be funded in order to defend the rights of those people.”
Groups that steer clear of politics, however, and work to fill gaps in resources, programming and funding at universities may not be greatly affected by any new legislation. Instead they will be viewed as assets rather than threats by Egypt’s leadership.
Yet some educational activities could suffer from unintended or indirect consequences. “We implement our workshops in cooperation with student organizations and maybe if the student organizations were affected, we could be partially affected,” said Perihan El Hefny, social media and PR coordinator at Injaz Egypt—an Egyptian organization whose activities include promoting entrepreneurial and work-readiness skills at public universities.
Mary C. Ott, Egypt Mission Director for the United States Agency for International Development, which supports basic and higher education-related activities in Egypt, declined to comment on the draft legislation. But she said Usaid values its partners and that Egypt’s independent organizations have a lot to offer.
“We have always worked with civil society organizations in our programs, both international and local,” said Ott. “We think they have a great deal to contribute and we would like to see an environment where they can work and produce their good results for Egypt.”